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Physical Computing + Fabrication

Digital Humanities Summer Institute (June 8-12, University of Victoria,

Instructors: Nina Belojevic, Devon Elliott, Shaun Macpherson, and Jentery Sayers

DHSI Director: Ray Siemens | DHSI Associate Director: Constance Crompton | DHSI Assistant Directors: Jason Boyd, Diane Jakacki, and Jentery Sayers


Theme: "Prototyping a Box: Material + Metaphor"

Throughout the week, we will survey physical computing and digital fabrication techniques by modelling, fabricating, programming, and repurposing boxes as both bits and atoms, materials and metaphors. We will consider how boxes serve multiple, often contradictory, functions. They are containers. They house computers and electronics. They frequently render their contents invisible. They are sculptures. They are conversation pieces. They can even be art objects. During the course, you will have the opportunity to prototype your own box and explain how it operates as both a material and a metaphor.

Learning Expectations

By the end of the week, you should:

  • Learn the basics of physical computing, 3D modelling, and fabrication.
  • Identify the common components of physical computing and fabrication projects.
  • In small groups (3-4 people), prototype a box and then communicate the aims of your prototype (as material and metaphor) to others in the course.
  • Know how to share the components of your prototype online.


Physical computing "means building interactive physical systems by the use of software and hardware that can sense and respond to the analog world. While this definition is broad enough to encompass things such as smart automotive traffic control systems or factory automation processes, it is not commonly used to describe them. In the broad sense, physical computing is a creative framework for understanding human beings' relationship to the digital world. In practical use, the term most often describes handmade art, design or DIY hobby projects that use sensors and microcontrollers to translate analog input to a software system, and/or control electro-mechanical devices such as motors, servos, lighting or other hardware." More care of Wikipedia.

Digital modelling and fabrication "is a process that joins design with the Construction / Production through the use of 3D modelling software and additive and subtractive manufacturing processes. These tools allow designers to produce material digitally, which is something greater than an image on screen, and actually tests the accuracy of the software and computer lines." More care of Wikipedia.


Before or during the course, it would be great if you could install the following software on your own machine:

In some cases (e.g., CorelDRAW and PhotoScan), you may want to consider trial licenses. Also, feel free to start an account with GitHub, if you don't already have one.


To the course, you should bring your own laptop, if possible. We will bring the following for you to use:

  • Arduinos
  • Fabricated box components (in wood)
  • Sensors, actuators, wires, motors, batteries, and breadboards
  • Glue, scissors, calipers, and various crafting + design supplies
  • SLR cameras

We (the instructors) also have access to CNC equipment for digital fabrication on the UVic campus. The four of us will be using this equipment to cut, mill, engrave, and design box components before and during DHSI. You do not need to provide your own box components.

Related Reading

For your reference, we've compiled some readings related to the course activities, workshops, and discussions. They are available in PDF for downloading and printing. Generally speaking, this course is informed by research by Morgan Ames, Anne Balsamo, Massimo Banzi, Leah Buechley, Nicolas Collins, Kari Kraus, Tom Igoe, Rob MacDougall, Bethany Nowviskie, Hannah Perner-Wilson, Matt Ratto, Robert Ree, Daniela K. Rosner, and William J. Turkel, among many others.

Favourite Projects

Throughout the week, we'll share our favourite physical computing and fabrication projects, including projects that inspired many of the technologies and practices will be experimenting with. For your reference, those projects, with URLs, are listed below. As you'll likely notice, they represent an array of disciplines, including design, sculpture, sound art, history, media studies, and engineering.

Schedule for the Week

Monday, June 8th (10:15-4:00)

  • 10:15-10:30, Introductions: We'll take a few minutes to say hello to each other.

  • 10:15-10:30, Intersecting Physical Computing and Fabrication with the Humanities (Jentery): What is the relevance of physical computing and fabrication to humanities research? (Notes from this brief overview)

  • 10:30-10:45, Theme for the Week (Jentery): We will briefly walk through the theme for the week, "Prototyping a Box: Material + Metaphor." Why use boxes as models for this course? What do they have to do with physical computing and fabrication? With the humanities? With critical and creative practice? (Notes from this discussion)

  • 10:45-12:00, Introduction to Arduino (Nina and Shaun): We will begin with an introduction to Arduino, the open-source microcontroller and Integrated Design Environment (IDE). During this time, we will walk through the components of the microcontroller, learn the basics of writing sketches in the IDE, briefly introduce the difference between digital and analog sensors and actuators, and begin building simple digital and analog circuits using switches, potentiometers, and LEDs. (Notes and terminology from the Arduino Intro)

  • 1:30-1:45, Nina's Favourite Projects: 1) Social Wearables, 2) Sound-Reactive Drums, 3) Moshi Moshi, 4) Scena Ex Machina, 5) [Rocktopus] (, 6) Arduino Pseudo-Theremin, 7) Sunscreen Reminder Hat, 8) Pu Gong Ying Tu, 9) Robotic Solenoid Controller, and 10) Chameleon Scarf

  • 1:45-4:00, Circuit Design and Arduino Programming (Nina and Shaun): In the afternoon, we will expand on the basics learned in the first session by working with various analog and digital Arduino components. You will begin to think about how to apply different combinations of sensors and actuators to the box project for the week by working in groups to explore the possibilities of generating behaviours based on programming interactions between components. (Notes and terminology from the Arduino Intro)

Tuesday, June 9th (9:00-4:00)

  1. Botanicalls, 3) TextSpresso, 4) Makey Makey, 5) Electro Smash PedalShield, 6) Maxuino, 7) Arduino Laser Harp, 8) Moon Phases Turntable, 9) Etch-A-Sketch Laser Cutter, and 10) Arduino Granular Synth

Wednesday, June 10th (9:00-4:00)

Thursday, June 11th (9:00-4:00)

Friday, June 12th (9:30-12:00)

  • 9:30-11:00: Finalize prototypes: During this session, you will finalize working versions of your prototypes, with assistance from the instructors and others in the course.
  • 11:00-12:00: Informal Presentations: You will informally share your prototypes with others in the course, and we'll collectively reflect on the week.